Reverse gear: back to India from US,and happy

Venkat and Usha Mangudi are the archetypal American returnees.

Written by Saritha Rai | Bangalore | Published:March 2, 2009 12:57 am

Venkat and Usha Mangudi are the archetypal American returnees. They live in a gated residential community in the Whitefield suburbs of Bangalore,where their street and neighbourhood is speckled with dozens of returnees like them.

In the evening,particularly,the gated community resembles a California neighborhood. The streets are littered with kids’ bikes and rollerblades. The cheery children playing on the streets,including the Mangudis’ seven- and four-year-olds,yell and hail each other in American-accented English.

A new report by Duke professor and Harvard researcher Vivek Wadhwa titled ‘America’s loss is the world’s gain’ documents the journey of thousands of highly skilled immigrants like the Mangudis,saying the returnees are draining away a key source of brain power and innovation for the US.

“We wanted to know what is encouraging this much-needed economic growth engine to leave our country,thereby sending entrepreneurship and economic stimulus to places like Bangalore and Beijing,” said Robert E. Litan,vice president of Research and Policy at the Kansas City,Missouri-based Kauffman Foundation,the private foundation working in innovation and entrepreneurship which released the study.

The Mangudis both in their thirties were H1-B visa holders who returned to Bangalore from New Jersey two years ago to start their own consulting business. They help small and medium businesses by-pass the expense and sting of heftily-priced software from multinationals like Oracle and SAP by assisting them with open-source solutions for their processes.

The report is particularly significant because the study comes at a time when the new US government led by President Barack Obama is placing limits on foreign workers and removing tax breaks for companies that are outsourcing work offshore.

Such measures will not address the US’s rising unemployment rate and “will undermine efforts to spur technologic innovation”,the report said.

The report’s lead researcher Vivek Wadhwa said the US had been the prime destination for the world’s best and brightest immigrants until recently. “Now countries like India and China are providing equal career opportunities and a better quality of life,so the most highly educated and skilled are often returning home,” he said.

The report preceded a two-year study of 1,203 Indian and Chinese subjects who had studied or worked in the US for a year or more before returning home.

Mangudi could well be the classic example. “I returned because it is home and because opportunities here far excel those for people like me in the United States or Europe,” said Mangudi. He spurned job offers from the local unit of Oracle Corporation and the outsourcing firm Wipro Limited to start his own company.

Attracting immigrants like Mangudi has been America’s biggest competitive advantage in technology innovation and research. According to the Kauffman study,immigrants have contributed disproportionately in the most dynamic part of the US economy — its high-tech sector,co-founding firms such as Google,Intel,eBay and Yahoo.

Immigrant researchers contributed to over a quarter of US global patent applications. Immigrant-founded US-based companies employed 450,000 workers and generated $52 billion in revenue in 2006. “Losing these skilled immigrants is an economic catastrophe that will hurt US competitiveness for decades to come,” said Wadhwa.

Mangudi said he saw a long-term impact of what he termed ‘American xenophobia’. Many of his friends who worked in leading multinational technology companies were granted five or six patents annually and if they chose to return,innovation may slow down in the US.

Also,it is now proven that Asian children in US schools and colleges generally raise the bar in academic and research excellence.

Not a week goes by without Venkat Mangudi getting a call from an Indian friend or colleague working in the US. “What are you doing there,dude? Come back!” some callers say,and Mangudi politely responds that he is happy in Bangalore. Many of those calling are tethered to the US by their green cards and homes bought with hard-earned savings and secretly regret that they cannot make the same choices as his wife and he,Mangudi says.

Increasingly,some ask for advice on making the journey back. Mangudi tells them that there are more opportunities in India for those in technology than in the US.

Mangudi plans to eventually expand his business to serve small and medium businesses in the US. When the couple retires,their dream is to open a wine bar in Bangalore so they can help other Indians enjoy the wines they learned to love in the US.

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